launches: Encrypted searching gets a boost

Though it doesn’t guarantee confidentiality from prying eyes if one’s computer is compromised through a trojan, virus, keystroke logger or other localised means, the launch of Google’s SSL search page comes as very good news. It’s not yet available for Google Sri Lanka, but I expect it will soon. As Google notes,

With Google search over SSL, you can have an end-to-end encrypted search solution between your computer and Google. This secured channel helps protect your search terms and your search results pages from being intercepted by a third party. This provides you with a more secure and private search experience.

Google also goes on to note that “Your Google experience using SSL search might be slighly slower than you’re used to because your computer needs to first establish a secure connection with Google.” This I did not find to be true. Searching for ‘Groundviews‘ on took exactly the same time as the normal – 0.29 seconds for about 285,000 results.

There are however some visual differences.

https Google
http Google
http Google

It’s not immediately apparent from the low-resolution screen shots above, but the date formatting, search result features (e.g. the Wonder wheel) and search results slightly differ between the two versions.

Google notes that is still in beta, but it’s already my default search engine. Can’t be too careful in a country that recently wanted Chinese help in censoring the web and Internet.

It’s ok for government to infiltrate online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens?

A wide-ranging interview published in the Daily Mirror with Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also the brother of the President, addresses the issue of internet and web surveillance. The relevant excerpt follows:

As an IT expert, do you think that it is ethical for a government to infiltrate into the online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens by gathering information, with regard to their political affiliations?

Actually, if we could do that it would be good, however as a third world country we don’t have that facility. But in all other developed countries they monitor emails, telephone conversations, SMS and people in the streets. So they have a lot of monitoring systems and also all their systems are integrated. Unfortunately, ours is not. All security agencies in these countries could, by simply giving a number; they can obtain all the details of a person. But we don’t have that facility and in fact we have to develop such a system.

Our ID card system is not effective, so we have to introduce a better system. We faced a situation in the past 4 years, we saw the weakness of the ID card system, where every suicide carder and terrorist had a bogus ID. Further our passport system is not fool-proof.

We don’t have a close CCTV surveillance system in Colombo; whereas in all the other big cities they are monitored.

We cant monitor SMS’s or email, we need to have such a system but we don’t and we are not doing it.

While it is not true that all developed countries monitor internet, web and mobile communications, many in fact do. As I noted in When even democracies go awry with online dissent, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Thailand, Indonesia and even the United States are guilty of online filtering, blocking and surveillance. As I wrote then, it is extremely important that we condemn these proposed and enacted measures as vehemently as we decry actions and policies to censor online content by regimes like China, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

And yet, the clear and present danger of the kind of pervasive surveillance championed by the Defence Secretary in post-war Sri Lanka is best expressed by Tapan Bose, a well known Indian journalist, film producer and political activist.

Today, in Sri Lanka nobody feels safe. There is an elected president. The election to the parliament has just been held. Yet this is the country where the main opposition candidate in the presidential election was summarily taken away by the military police and is now being forced to face military court martial on trumped-up charges. In Sri Lanka, whether one is a businessman or a politician or a judge or a media person no one escape the scrutiny of the intelligence wings of the state. The most powerful organ of the state is the intelligence apparatus of the government. This is return to the “Arthashastra”, ancient Indian treaties on governance written by Chanakya. The advice of Chanakya to the “Prince” was that the success of the regime depended on the system’s ability to get the subjects to spy on each other and constantly report to the state. (Review of Sri Lanka: The Emergence Of The Power Of The Intelligence Apparatus, published in Sri Lanka Guardian)

One also recalls columnist Kumar David’s dire prediction earlier this year – which I flagged in Sri Lankan President halts web censorship, which raises more vital questions.

The problem is this, the government will get draconian measures ready but will not reveal them till after the elections – why give the opposition another handle to beat it with – then will come the LIDA communication straight-jacket and legislation to smother dissent.

Prima facie, what Gotabaya Rajapaksa points to is certainly desirable from the perspective of intelligence operations to thwart terrorism. But the real fear, given the government’s noted tendency to clamp down on dissent and political opposition is that a sophisticated surveillance system will lead to persecution, execution and censorship – in sum, a system in the control of a few in government to contain and control media and content.

We have such efforts before., now largely forgotten, has gone through two versions without any significant improvement. The first version was downright farcical. The second version was no less bizarre and dysfunctional. I have never bothered to enter my details into this site and once told the Cinnamon Gardens Police, who politely insisted I enter my details to this system, to come back with the legal basis that required me to do so. They have not stepped into office since. So clearly, we already have intrusive websites created and promoted by government with no legal basis that at their most benign, serve no purpose other than to replicate information already in multiple locations in the administration.

In sum, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in favour of a Police state. There is nothing more important for him than command and control of citizenry, a mindset that fuels an architecture of monitoring private communications and public media inimical to democracy given the lack of legal redress and quite often, the extra-judicial nature of government reprisals. Sadly too, there is no progressive vision here for the use of ICTs to strengthen government. Initiatives like the US State Department’s Opinion Space, or one of my own through Groundviews to foster progressive ideas on democracy, are not even on the radar of this government or its supine puppet, the ICT Agency.

Kumar David may well be correct. Given the bent of the Defence Secretary, post-war Sri Lanka is set to head into an Internet dark age.

Australia and pornography: Google says filtering goes too far

I recently wrote on how even robust democracies can censor the Internet. When even democracies go awry with online dissent looked at the examples from France, Australia, the United Kingdom and even the US where new media use, including citizen journalism, and other content have been banned or blocked. Whenever I have decried censorship in Sri Lanka, I have noted that similar initiatives in these countries gives regimes far less democratic a convenient excuse for their own actions to control and censor content they find inconvenient.

Google agrees.

As reported in Ars Technica, Google is, unsurprisingly, less than enthusiastic about Australia’s pornographic filtering on the internet.

Predictably, Google has some objections (PDF), including its oblique comment that Australia’s mandatory filtering scheme could “confer legitimacy upon filtering by other Governments.”

“Australia is rightly regarded as a liberal democracy that balances individual liberty with social responsibility,” continues the Google filing. “The Governments of many other countries may justify, by reference to Australia, their use of filtering, their lack of disclosure about what is being filtered, and their political direction of agencies administering filtering.”

Because Australia’s constitution does not contain blanket support for freedom of expression, instead offering a more limited freedom of political discourse), Google argues that “there is a significant risk that filtering applied today to RC content could readily be extended by future governments to other forms of expression, whether related to sexual content or violence or not.”

Australia’s problems with filtering pornographic content mirror the technical difficulties – some would argue technical impossibility – of censoring such content online. Sri Lanka has also made noises in this regard in 2008, but to date, even twelve sites determined to have pornographic content and blocked by court order are accessible over some ISPs.

Will this change in the future, with the justification used that the regimes that lecture to the government about the freedom of expression also clamp down on content online?

Government denies plans for web filtering, wants to establish online ethics

Two news stories published today address concerns over recent reports that the Sri Lankan government was planning to filter critical dissent online, in a context where websites have been blocked arbitrarily and without any legal authority. Ironically, pornographic sites that have been banned by the law are more easily accessible than those than are not!

Both stories quote the TRC, which is in the centre of recent controversy over web censorship. The one on Lanka Business Online notes,

“There is nothing in the cards,” Anusha Pelpita, director general the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRC) said. “Monitoring websites is not in the TRC mandate. Even if we wanted to, it will take at several months to bring in such legislation.”

Monitoring cyberspace to regulate anti-govt. content by Satarupa Bhattacharjya in the Sunday Times also quotes Palpita,

“We do not have such regulations yet. But I think there should be a proper system of monitoring and regulating content,” Palpita told the Sunday Times. The nature of content – whether political, cultural, religious or pornographic – should be checked if they “create problems in society,” Palpita said.

Palpita reiterates that there is no validity to the claims made by, for example, by UNP MP Dayasiri Jayasekara in the media, that Chinese engineers were assisting the TRC in framing an electronic surveillance model for online content. Satarupa’s article ends on an interesting note,

“The Government, ISPs and citizens’ bodies could sit together and work out some kind of a code of ethics,” an official of the Information and Communication Technology Agency told the Sunday Times, on condition of anonymity.

There is in fact, among other guidelines, the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility 2008, which I had some part in shaping, which addresses this avowed concern of Government. The comprehensive ethical guidelines included in this declaration can easily be interpreted to cover online media as well, especially the websites of well known traditional print and broadcast media. As importantly, this declaration was signed on to by media industry giants including the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Free Media Movement, Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka.

I am not opposed to discussion on online ethics, but we must not forget the Rajapaksa regime’s rather poor track record in this regard. Three examples suffice, both attempts at controlling and containing free expression online and in traditional media over the past 3 years. Both never made it to legislation, but clearly demonstrate the approach to and understanding of the freedom of expression by the Rajapaksa regime:
  • The Private TV broadcasting regulations in 2008. A detailed critique of this atrocious piece of legal drafting can be read here.
  • Draft National Media Policy, 2007. Read a critique of this terrible policy draft, written together with Article 19, here.
  • In a slight different vein, read my comments on ‘National Policy on Local Government’ as published in the Daily News, 25th September 2009. This brief note responds to several points enumerated in the draft National Policy on Local Government on the proposed use of Information Communication Technology at local government levels, with a specific focus on leveraging mobiles and encouraging citizen journalism in the vernacular.

In fact, the discussion over online ethics that is already taking place in some web media. Way back in 2007, I noted in an editorial titled The pretense of professionalism – the flipside of media freedom in Sri Lanka on Groundviews that,

While attention is concentrated on the growing challenges to free media – and rightly so given the growing repression and censorship – less attention is paid to the unprofessional conduct of media that in their careless abandon of the rights of readers and contributors exacerbates significant problems facing the development of professional media in Sri Lanka… The point is simply that until media fully ascribes to, in spirit and practice, established codes of professional conduct, they are in no position to agitate for greater media freedom.

My submission on Groundviews took into account two other existing codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for media,

It is possible that the anonymous official at ICTA quoted in the Sunday Times news story is ignorant of these existing guidelines. It is possible that a national media charter introduced after elections is censorious in nature, and worse than that which was proposed in 2007. The actions of the government this year alone to quell online dissent do not inspire confidence in progressive legislation, or any meaningful dialogue with civil society before such legislation is enacted. And so while traditional media needs to be more professional and more fully ascribe to existing guidelines, it is also the case that outrageous attitudes and practices of the Rajapaksa government have since 2005 place independent media on the guillotine.

As a result, despite Palpita’s repeated assurances to the contrary, there is little confidence that the government will allow the growth of independent media online without dire consequences to producers and publishers.


As was pointed out to be by some readers, there is in fact another news story, also in the Sunday Times, that suggests the Chinese will be in Colombo shortly to work on online censorship. Chinese here for cyber censorship by Bandula Sirimanna notes,

Experts from China — which is embroiled in a battle with global search giant Google over allegations of web censorship — will help Sri Lanka to block “offensive” websites. IT experts of China’s Military Intelligence Division will be here within the next two weeks to map out the modalities required for this process. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) will introduce necessary legislation to make registration with the institution compulsory for all news websites. These websites should obtain the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from the TRC under new regulations that will be introduced shortly. In addition action will be taken to impose controls on the Google search engine as well in relation to these issues.

Sri Lankan government to block internet and censor independent web media?

There is an extremely disturbing news report published today on Lanka News Web which suggests the Sri Lankan government is pulling out all stops to censor and control free expression online.

This comes in the context of news that the President himself is now in charge of the Media Ministry, and that Anusha Palpita, the person in charge of the Government Information Department is now part time, also in control of the Telecommunications Regulations Commission (TRC). Quite apart from the report on Lanka News Web, these developments point to the consolidation of media control (and censorship) in the hands of the President and his apparatchiks, which is extremely disturbing given the Rajapakse regime’s ignoble record of protecting the freedom of expression.

The Lanka News Web article notes,

The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) is in the process of formulating regulations to be imposed on news websites, it is learnt. Chinese military intelligence specialists have reportedly been approached to formulate these firewalls. Sources from TRC said several Chinese specialists are to visit the country during the next few weeks for this purpose. The TRC is to also make it compulsory for all news websites operating in the country to register with the Commission. It is also planned to make news websites in the country to operate through an internet protocol address provided by the TRC. A similar system is followed by the Chinese government.

Emphasis mine.

This news item comes in the wake of another published by a newspaper on Chinese involvement in the TRC’s attempts to control social networking sites in Sri Lanka plus very disturbing trends in curtailing online news just before and after the recently held Presidential elections. As I noted in Chavez equates Twitter with terrorism: Disturbing parallels with Sri Lankan Government?, these include,

Though the Lanka News Web story is unverified, it is this context of existing censorship of online media that strengthens significant concerns over even more control and censorship, aided by the Chinese.

So the challenge, and it is both urgent and vital to online freedom of expression, is how we can verify this news story?

Al Jazeera questions media freedom in post-war Sri Lanka

Al Jazeera’s path-breaking The Listening Post programme looks at enduring challenges facing media freedom in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan media war continues critically looks at the video broadcast by Channel 4, the sentencing of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and the continued violence against independent media. This programme features at the end very short submissions made by one of Sri Lanka’s leading bloggers, Indi Samarajiva, and myself.

Neda Agha-Soltan’s mother speaks out

The murder of Neda Agha-Soltan is one of the most watched and viral videos and viscerally compelling stories that came out of Iran this year. Neda’s mother was interviewed by the BBC recently. This is one answer.

How would you like your daughter to be remembered?

I don’t want people to forget her. People – Iranians – have all been very supportive. They come to me and congratulate me for having had such a brave daughter. And now I want you to do something for me. I want you, on my behalf, to thank everyone around the world, Iranians and non Iranians, people from every country and culture, people who in their own way, their own tradition, have mourned my child… everyone who lit a candle for her – every musician, who wrote songs for her, who wrote poems about her… you know, Neda loved the arts and music. I want to thank all of them.
I want to thank politicians and leaders, from every country, at all levels, who remembered my child.

Her death has been so painful – words can never describe my true feelings. But knowing that the world cried for her… that has comforted me.

I am proud of her. The world sees her as a symbol, and that makes me happy.